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thinking work June 10, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in grad school, research, solar physics.
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I have to give a presentation next week and older son took off for the summer, so between getting slides together and getting stuff and people shuttled to the airport, it was a rather busy weekend.  There was some code I wanted to work on but didn’t have the chance.

It’s funny, though, because I was still thinking about it, and I actually think I made good progress on a plan of action.  I realized I had three options: fix it, rewrite it, or throw my hands up in despair and give up. (Okay…last one is very low on the list of possibilities, but I can’t say it’s non-existent…there have been days.)  I’m not sure I can fix it, but I have an idea of how to go about doing it.  It’s a piece of code without commenting, but I know what it’s supposed to do, and I have an awesome ‘cookbook’ of numerical algorithms that explains it.  (Need a spline written in a jiffy….I’m your woman!)  I also suspect that in the process of trying to fix it, I’ll figure out a way to rewrite it a bit more efficiently, likely with less effort than fixing it will take.  And I planned out how I can verify everything, as well.

While I didn’t have much time to work on it directly, I got my resources together and know what I’m going to do so I can hit it first thing after work tomorrow.  I wonder if I made more progress by spending my ‘off’ time thinking about it than if I’d just dived in.  I guess I should know in a couple days.  But it’s funny how stepping away from something and letting your mind idle on it can result in something worthwhile.

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Famous April 11, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, research, science, solar physics.
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I’m not sure if it’s because I live in a small town, but I had something odd happen yesterday.  There is a wonderful bakery in town which has things like sandwiches and soup.  It’s also the only place in town (that I know of) with no internet, so I go there when I have things to do like grading.

Yesterday, as I was buying some lunch, one of the people working there came up and said he’d seen the profile of my research in the paper a couple weeks ago and asked me some questions about it.  Given it’s been a couple of weeks,  I’m surprised he remembered seeing it.  On the other hand, because I’m in there fairly often, I wondered if he recognized me when he saw the article.  But it was kind of cool to be recognized.

Are grad classes a waste of time? February 5, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, geophysics, grad school, physics, research, solar physics, teaching.
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I have seen both Gears and Massimo post comments about how grad classes are a waste of time.  Last week, Gears said this in his EngineerBlogs post (which I’d like to address several points, but this will have to suffice for tonight) and Massimo has suggested ‘workshop’ classes. I have to say that I disagree with both of them, but I think it’s because of my weird background.

For review, I did an undergrad in physics with a math minor, my masters in electrical engineering, and my PhD will officially be in geophysics (as was all my coursework) though my project is actually on solar physics.

Honestly, I’m not sure I could have done that without the coursework.  On the other hand, I think my attitude would be different if I’d stayed in one field. In my work in electrical engineering, I use almost every class I took, especially the grad courses.  I use antennas and microwave engineering a lot…so much so, that my circuits classes are probably the most rusty.  (I know, that’s completely backwards for an EE, but that’s how it goes sometimes.)  I find myself often wishing I’d had the opportunity to take some advanced signal processing, as well.  And one of the most useful courses was numerical techniques in electromagnetics.  Not only does it help me with the work I’m doing in EE, it’s also helping with many of the things I’ve run into looking at geo- and solar physics research.

The flip side to this is that if I’d continued on to get a PhD in EE, any further coursework would not have been terribly relevant.  I think there’s an optimum point, and that may have come earlier if my undergrad was in EE.

My classes in geophysics were not as useful, and I think there were probably 2.5 classes that had anything at all to do with my research and what I’m doing now.  Realistically, for the stuff I was interested in, I probably should have looked at a PhD in physics or astrophysics…but that may not have been much better if I was taking a bunch of classes on stuff that had no bearing on my research, either (which is likely).  However, the 2.5 classes that were useful have been REALLY useful.

I’ve got a breadth in classes that most students never get.  This is one thing that I think is a bit of a sticking point for some students.  Most places have a ‘breadth requirement’ – i.e. so many classes outside of their department.  I think this is a good thing as it helps people to see what other types of things could be relevant to their research.  I really think this is something that should be required because of all the ideas that come from seeing how different disciplines approach their fundamental problems, and even having some exposure to what those problems are is a benefit to students.

The real problem, in my opinion, is that so many places require a LOT of credits.  It’s fairly common in most good EE programs to require somewhere between 50 and 60 credits of JUST coursework.  I don’t like the idea of no classes, but I really think you could trim them back and just make students take classes that are relevant to their research as well as a couple classes for breadth.  I was very disappointed with my PhD program because once you hit advanced candidacy status, you’re not allowed to take any more classes unless your advisor is willing to foot the bill.  Not likely because most advisors want their students working on their research and getting done (not that I blame them).  The down side is that there are a couple classes that I could have really used but was unable to take because they didn’t fulfill the requirements for my degree.  Most of my classes had to be in the department as I’d already fulfilled my breath requirement, so taking a class here or there outside the department was viewed as a waste of time because they didn’t allow me to tick off some of those boxes in the red tape.  And of course, it becomes obvious that you would really benefit from a course once you’ve hit advanced status and can’t take any more.

It would be nice if there was a system where your advisor could sit down with you and figure out where you’re interested in going research-wise and plot a course through the classwork that makes sense and is flexible.  Wouldn’t it be nice if you discovered you need to learn about a particular topic and could then go take the course on it? It makes more sense to me than filling in boxes to get to a certain number of credits or hedging bets that something will be useful later on.

Let’s face it: research degrees are already very specialized and take a long time, so it would make more sense to cut the classes down to those that are relevant.  This would ideally save time without sacrificing the background required for a research project. Finally, a really good option, which more universities ought to allow, is independent study classes.  During my MS, I took one class as an independent study working on emag stuff.  It was awesome as I got the material I really needed in a more structured way and was able to do a project which (I’m still hoping) would be a foundation for some decent research down the line.  Therefore, I don’t feel grad classes are a waste of time, as long as they make sense, and I wish universities would be more flexible in some of their requirements.

I have converted January 9, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in computers, research, science, solar physics.
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Because of the vagaries of my status at UMN (that is, I am an enrolled student, but I don’t pay tuition and therefore do not get some of the perks), I found out that I could no longer get access to Matlab.  This is a bummer because, well, I need it for my thesis.

I’m trying to prove out some code and it’s easier to see what’s going on in Matlab because of the plotting functions.  The idea is that I would like to write it up in there, see what’s going on, and then translate it to the dreaded Fortran.

Alas, I guess I’m having to break up with Matlab.  Instead, I’m learning Scilab.  I find this somewhat funny given how I was explaining to my engineering students last semester that once you know a computer language, it’s often easier to learn another.  (Sadly, most chose not to learn a first one.)  This is doubly so moving from Matlab to Scilab (or, I imagine, the reverse order) because they are so similar.

I like Scilab because it seems to me like a cleaned up version of Matlab.  I don’t consider myself a master in the art of Matlab Kung Fu, but I’m passable.  I have written a small program to solve the Boltzmann equation in the presence of an electromagnetic field and later solved the intractable igloo problem.  However, there are some of the subtleties of matrix operations in Matlab which have always proved problematic for me, mostly dealing with conditional statements to indicate matrix indices, leaving me to fall back on loops.  Not efficient, but it works.  So far, it appears that these operations are more straightforward in Scilab.  I also like the use of the % to indicate prenamed variables.  I am all too guilty of using i as a counter and then being frustrated because it wouldn’t work as an imaginary value later in the program.  And of course, I really like the price tag.

I haven’t yet gotten to some of the plotting I need, however, and as I understand it, that is where Matlab excels.  We shall see.

Have you used both programs?  If so, how do you think they compare?

I want to ride my solar cycle February 8, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in physics, solar physics, Uncategorized.
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A little while back, I posted a bit of an intro to solar physics.  I spent time talking about sunspots and how they are a visible expression of the sun’s magnetic field.

Most people are aware that sunspots tend to occur in cycles.  There’s been a lot in the press the past couple years about how Sunspot Cycle 24 has been off to a slow start.  In fact, you may have seen this graphic:

This graph shows the sunspot activity from 1995-2009.  As you can see, the sunspots will increase and then decrease in intensity in approximately an eleven-year cycle.  At the end of one increase in intensity, the dipolar part of the sun’s magnetic field will reverse: that is, north pole becomes south and vice versa.  After another 11 years and another sunspot cycle, it flips back to it’s original orientation.  This means that the magnetic cycle is 22 years.

There are other cycles in sunspots, though.  Sunspot cycles will increase and decrease in intensity on a scale of about 80 years.  This is called the Gleissberg cycle.  You can kind of see this in the dark trend line:

You can also see that there are periods of very low activity.  These are called minimum, and there is a lot of study looking at what causes these.  Originally, it was thought that the Maunder Minimum may have been an artifact of poor observational practices, but there are other records confirming the existence of this Minimum.  (I’ll probably talk more about those at a later time.)

There are other cycles of varying lengths which have been proposed, some of which have periodicity of thousands of years.  But why do these matter?

There are several reasons we care, although I’ll only mention a few here.  First, space weather is becoming more and more important with the presence of satellites.  When solar activity increases, this directly affects satellite communications as well as various systems on Earth.  Understanding cycles can provide some predictability and could, in the future, allow us to prepare and protect such systems.  Second, these behaviors give us information as to what is going on inside the sun.  That information is helpful in figuring out how it works and what we can expect it to do.  Given the sun is the primary source of energy on the planet, we really ought to understand how it works.  Finally, solar energy output and variability directly impacts the Earth’s climate.  It is important to understand how the sun works so that we can differentiate it from other factors and forcing functions that are operating on the climate system.

All this talk about cycles has made me realize that there is one cycle the sun doesn’t have: a bicycle.

The geophysics (and 1 solar physics) linkety-link September 7, 2010

Posted by mareserinitatis in geophysics, science, solar physics.
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New View of Tectonic Plates: Computer Modeling of Earth’s Mantle Flow, Plate Motions, and Fault Zones: This article on Science Daily gives an overview of a new model that examines the interplay between mantle flow, tectonic motion, and fault zone behavior. (The original article is here, but it’s behind a pay wall.) The authors have taken an adaptive algorithm, which can create a finer mesh in areas where more detail is needed, and modified it so that it can be used on distributed computing systems. Many models utilize regularly spaced meshes. It would be really cool to develop a model that incorporates the behavior of all parts and scales of the Earth system, and this model may be a step in that direction.

ScienceNews had an article on what may have been an uber-fast magnetic field reversal. I’ll be interested to see what other people say on this one. One friend noted that the thermal history of the area is complicated and thus may not be a good candidate for this type of study, but I’m not sure how you could find this with something less complicated. Anyway, it would have some interesting implications if the field actually can flip this fast…or at least have an excursion.

Discovery News has an article on a proposal that the Yellowstone hotspot may have shredded the Juan de Fuca plate, thus slowing down the rate of subduction of the Pacific under North America.

And finally, Dave Jones from EEVblog sent this one out over Twitter: something from the sun, possibly neutrinos, might change the rate of decay for radioactive elements on Earth. That’s just cool.

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